One of the most interesting aspects of this Shabbat preceding Pesach is its name which we usually translate to mean the Great Shabbat. However this leaves us with a number of questions.
- Why then is the masculine adjective ha-gadol used, instead of the feminine ha-gedolah?
- Why is the definite article ha- attached only to the adjective? It should be either Shabbat gadol or ha-Shabbat ha-gadol. Shabbat ha-Gadol is grammatically correct only if it means “Shabbat of ha-Gadol”.
- Since the Israelites spoke Aramaic exclusively, if this Shabbat’s sole meaning were “the Great Shabbat”, it would not have been called “Shabbat ha-Gadol” which is Hebrew, but rather Shabbata Rabbah (as in Hoshana Rabbah).
- Why is it called this name altogether?
To answer these questions we need first to trace the origin of this name.
The earliest source explaining the meaning of Shabbat ha-Gadol is Rashi (in Sefer ha-Pardes and Sefer ha-Orah). He states that the Children of Yisrael went forth from Egypt on Nisan 15, which was a Thursday. Consequently Nisan 10, the day on which they took and set aside the korban Pesach (see Shemot 12.3), fell on Shabbat. The Children of Yisrael were afraid that the Egyptians would kill them for slaughtering their deity, but when Hashem promised them that they would be miraculously protected from harm each man took his Pesach lamb to keep it ready for four days, until Nisan 14. The Egyptians did indeed attempt to kill the Jews but they were incapacitated by the miracles which Hashem performed for the Israelites. In memory of these miracles that Shabbat has since been known as Shabbat ha-Gadol the “great Shabbat”. (A similar explanation appears in Tur, Orach Chayim 630).
This explanation, but with a different description of the events in Egypt, also appears in Tosafot (Shabbat 87b “Ve-Oto” and see Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggadot, loc.cit), who reconciles these diverging descriptions of the occurrences of these five days.
This therefore must be taken as authoritative in respect of our question 4) above. Though there are numerous other suggestions for why it was HaGadol. But in order to answer the rest of our questions we need to quote the Matteh Moshe (Amud haAvodoh 542) in name of his teacher Maharshal that the name is taken from the Haftara read on this Shabbat (Malakhi 3:4-24). The next to last verse of this chapter reads “Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the great [ha-gadol ] and awesome day of Hashem”. We see from this that it really is the “Shabbat of ha-Gadol “
Matteh Moshe says that the Maharshal asked, if so, then this should have been called “Shabbat ve-Arvah”, after the very first word of the Haftarah, as in Shabbat Chazon and Shabbat Nachamu. The answer, Matteh Moshe states is that Shabbat ha-Gadol was so named, not only as an allusion to the Haftarah, but also to the great (gadol) miracle which occurred on that Shabbat.
So this answers all our questions as “HaGadol” is the only appropriate word.
There are other opinions that HaGadol is not an adjective describing this Shabbat, but it is a noun with Shabbat being in the genitive = the Shabbat of the Gadol which also answers all our questions e.g. The Shabbat of the Lechem Hagadol (the extra large loaves baked for this Shabbat for distribution to the poor) or Shabbat of Hallel HaGadol, or of Chodesh HaGadol or of the Rabbi (HaGadol) who gave the Drasha.
All agree that this is a great Shabbat.